Forum: Translating the Dharma

A roundtable discussion with Bhikkhu Bodhi, Elizabeth Callahan, Francisca Cho and Larry Mermelstein on translating the Dharma.

By Lion’s Roar

Photo by Chris Wieland.

In this panel we get a rare glimpse of Buddhist translators talking shop. Although they are essential to the life of the religion, translators usually stay in the background, part of the unseen foundation of Buddhism. Most translators do not even put their names on their writing, for they are simply part of a committee. Could anybody name, for example, a member of the committee that translated the King James Bible, the most successful translation in history, which worked so well as a basis for Christianity in English that it shaped the development of the English language itself? And yet there is in most Buddhist cultures a special place of honor reserved for translators when they emerge from their quiet places. The Tibetans give a title, lotsawa, to their top translators and support them often with royal patronage.

Buddhist translators tend to think of themselves in historical context. They know that eventually the entire corpus of Indian or Chinese or Tibetan or whateverBuddhism will have to be transferred to English. This is a complex and multi-generational job, but it has to be done, as it has always been done in the past as Buddhism entered new cultures. Most people have come to know Buddhism through translations.

As Bhikkhu Bodhi points out, the early stage of large-scale Buddhist translations into English tended to imitate the style of the King James or sometimes the floweriness of Victorian rhetoric. In the early part of the twentieth century, the Pali Text Society made it their mission to translate the entire Theravada Buddhist canon into English. We don’t actually know what language the Buddha spoke, but at a certain point his discourses and the primary Buddhist scriptures were translated into Pali and Sanskrit. Pali is a dead language that is very similar to Sanskrit. It comes from the same root, Indo-european, as English, German and the Romance languages and is therefore relatively easy for Westerners to pronounce.

Then, starting in the second century AD, the Sanskrit scriptures were transferred to Chinese and later into Japanese, Tibetan and the other Eastern languages. Chinese is an interesting example, because it shows one of the points debated in this panel. The early Chinese translations were very intuitive and expressive, because they aimed at the Han dynasty intelligentsia, who were Confucians and Taoists. Some ten centuries later, during the Sung dynasty, there was a second wave of extremely literal translations that could only be read and understood by monks and specialists. The Sung translations put all their technical terms in transliterated Sanskrit. It was now impossible to understand a Buddhist sutra unless you knew hundreds of Sanskrit words such as prajna, samadhi and paramita.

The problem was intertextuality. The Sung translators knew the entire Sanskrit canon and could see how a word like “prajna” networked a vast number of texts in a matrix of ideas, allusions and associations. For example, the discourses of the Buddha use the word prajna in the Prajnaparamita Sutras, the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras. Later philosophers such as Nagarjuna and Asanga produced a philosophical literature that sought to explain what the word prajna in the Buddha’s discourses meant. Later the word was used in tantric sadhanas. So, for example, when the Vajrayogini liturgy said that the goddess was the Mother Perfection of Prajna, that linked this chanting practice to a net of sutras and commentaries.

As you will see, modern English translators deal with this problem in many ways. For example, most translators and translation groups maintain a glossary of technical terms that they edit down and place at the end of each of their books. These glossaries are circulated among all translators.

In this panel there is a clear distinction between the literary and ecclesiastical translators. A literary translator aims to have his or her book read by non-Buddhists. Expressiveness is the most important quality of this kind of translation. It is a very different art from ecclesiastical translation and one which has a special tradition in the West, where it is often said that your translation should not be literal but what Homer would have come up with anew, had English been his native language. Of course, as the panelists point out, most Buddhist translators, no matter who their target audience, combine all methods in different degrees, because translators are nothing if not pragmatic.

—Robin Kornman


Buddhadharma: To start things off, it would be good to know what kind of translation work each of you has engaged in.

Bhikkhu Bodhi: After my ordination as a Theravada Buddhist monk in 1972, I began translating suttas and commentaries. At first, I did this for myself because I couldn’t understand very clearly the existing translations. Gradually these translations built up until I began, at the request of others, to publish them, and then in time I began translating collections of canonical discourses.

The problem I faced in trying to understand the Buddha’s discourses was not so much what was lost in translation, but that the translations were opaque to me. They had been done in the twenties and thirties by translators who seemed to try to render the Pali text in a language reminiscent of the King James Bible. I wanted to understand the text in a language that would be intelligible to me. The only way to go about this was to learn the original language. Initially, I used the existing translation as a crib to get the meaning of the text. Once I became sufficiently familiar with the text, I could work on it without depending on existing translations.

Francisca Cho: I work in Korean Buddhism, where I focus on the relationship between Buddhism and literature—fiction, poetry and film. I’m not normally a translator but recently I translated a volume of poetry by Manhae, a Korean Buddhist monk who lived in the early twentieth century. I would characterize his work as Buddhist poetry, although it is not overtly about Buddhism. References to samadhi and emptiness surface in a few of the poems, but if you weren’t a Buddhist and you were to read through this collection, they probably wouldn’t strike you as being overtly about Buddhism, although people have read it to be allegorically about Buddhist enlightenment.

Larry Mermelstein: I started studying Sanskrit around the same time I was becoming a Buddhist. My teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, felt the strong need to create a body of literature for his students’ liturgical needs and to provide material for study and for appreciation of the lineage they were inheriting. So, he formed the Nalanda Translation Committee to work directly with him, and that has continued for almost thirty years. We have a group of about twenty people, five of whom are involved full-time in translation.

Elizabeth Callahan: Like Larry, I’m a practitioner in the Karma Kagyü tradition. I’ve done two traditional three-year retreats and have been translating texts primarily for the use of people in this tradition who wish to further their understanding. I’ve been mainly doing meditation manuals of philosophical works which, for the most part, remain in restricted circulation.

Buddhadharma: Whether it’s a sutra, a work of poetry, a meditation manual or a philosophical commentary, one of the major concerns must be what is lost to the reader in translation.

Bhikkhu Bodhi: As I studied the texts in the original language, I made extensive notes and organized them according to an outline system I had devised. In so doing, I discovered an extensive underground current of connections between terms and ideas. It’s very precise and systematic in the original language, but when one renders it into English or some other contemporary language, no matter how consistent one might try to make one’s translation, that underground current of connections, resonances of terms, and overlapping and interconnected meanings largely gets lost.

Larry Mermelstein: Do you find you are able to give the reader some of that information elsewhere, in an introduction or footnotes, for example?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: I try to do it by using extensive back notes. I also include fairly detailed introductions, particularly to the translation that I published of the Samyutta Nikaya, the connected discourses. The interconnection of terms and ideas runs throughout the four Nikayas but it is particularly important and evident in the Samyutta Nikaya. I did not specifically address that point in the introduction and back notes to my translation, however. I dealt more with doctrinal issues since I wrote the introduction and back notes for the reader and not for scholars who know both languages.

Francisca Cho: Translation is a huge concern in my academic discipline, comparative religious studies, but in teaching undergraduates about religion, I have learned to become more relaxed about what is getting lost. I accept the fact that translations are creations in their own right and the main role of a translation is to be accessible and understandable to the English reader in the modern American and Western context. There’s a tendency for academics and translators to be very concerned about what’s not said, but I have become convinced over the years that it is not so important as reaching the reader in their own context.

Elizabeth Callahan: The challenge for me is to join together the strong need to provide something that makes sense to the reader with the need to maintain the integrity of the original and show how ideas are interwoven throughout an entire work or body of works. Every translator is always striking this balance. For a more general audience, the primary concern may be readability and allowing readers to derive the meaning more immediately. If it’s a technical topic and your audience has more background, then you can show them the bones of it more. In the end, of course, the whole point is to have them derive meaning from it, so it’s not a good idea to let meaning get lost in a tangle of jargon that only scholars and people who know the original languages can understand.

Larry Mermelstein: While some things may be lost in translation, there is something that is gained as well. With the very high degree of literacy in the English speaking world, we have the possibility of many more people understanding something of the teachings. Up until recent times in Tibet, no more than a fifth or a quarter of the population was literate. With greater literacy, there is a huge capability for greater access to the literature.

Buddhadharma: Since Buddhism is so often talking about human experiences of the most subtle kind—mindfulness, concentration, samadhi, emptiness, luminosity and so forth—is one translating the experience or the word? Is it necessary to consider the experience the word will engender in the reader or does one primarily look for words that seem to be used in a similar way in the target language to how they are used in the source language?

Elizabeth Callahan: I think translators are always doing both and balancing the two concerns. Tibetans have terms that I call “experiential words.” They are words or phrases that are only used to describe meditation experiences. Although they are derived from actual words, they are onomatopoeic in character. When I translated The Ocean of Definitive Meaning, I encountered quite a number of these. In each case, I chose a word in English that I felt carried the same flavor of expression. Then, I included the Tibetan in parentheses after each occurrence and devoted one glossary to these terms. In that glossary, I included a Tibetan dictionary definition of each term and comments that I had compiled over the years from the two teachers who were my resources for the translation.

An example of this kind of term is the Tibetan word hrig ge. I translated it as “sharp.” The glossary entry says, “A nonconceptual, unobscured state where one sees one’s own nature. Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche demonstrated this by staring straight ahead with wide-open eyes.” It also includes a quote from Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, who said, “It is nonthought, like a gap experience. It is demonstrated by staring. It is like when one sees something scary and one’s eyes become wide-open.” Then it includes the Great Tibetan-Chinese Dictionary gloss as “vibrant clarity.” Finally, it mentions that the term is also translated as “dazzling,” “glaring,” and “wakeful.”

Larry Mermelstein: In our formative years in working with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, we spent quite a lot of time trying to imagine how a reader might understand a particular term’s translation, and this perspective was very important to us. While sometimes an excellent choice might emerge from our consultation with the dictionary, the OED being our chief reference, if this was likely to remain obscure to our intended audience, we would often feel the need to look further.

Bhikkhu Bodhi: I don’t think it is necessary to posit a sharp distinction between “translating the word and translating the experience” and then insist that a translator must choose one or the other. A balance between the two is the ideal and some synthesis between them is a realistic possibility. But I believe that if the translator is in fact translating, and not using the text as a springboard to creative innovation, he or she must remain faithful to the words of the text. This means the translator must try to understand those words as accurately as possible, both in the context out of which the text arose, and in relation to the larger corpus of which that text might be a part. Since these texts are dealing, at least part of the time, with inner experiences, when attempting to convey his or her understanding of what those experiences involve—and this inevitably engages the translator to some extent in interpretation—the translator will have to select the renderings in the target language that convey most satisfactorily this experiential dimension.

In my own experience, when I have to translate texts using Pali technical terms, I try to understand the meaning of those words against the broader Indian background of early Buddhism and in relation to the network of interconnected ideas that underlie the suttas themselves. Then I try to find words in English that will convey those meanings most satisfactorily. Of course, there are inevitably huge gaps between the meanings suggested by the Pali words and the ideas that the English counterparts we select will convey. We must try our best to find a terminology that will capture the intended meanings, but we must also remember that translation cannot be a self-sufficient enterprise. It must also be supplemented by explanation and annotation, which will set the terms in their appropriate context of Buddhist doctrine and practice so that the reader can better appreciate how they are being used.

For example, “concentration” is hardly satisfactory as a rendering for samaadhi, but, unless we decide to allow this word to go untranslated, any other rendering (“composure,” “collectedness,” “absorption,” etc.), will also be inadequate. The meaning of the term samaadhi only begins to come to light for the reader—and I’m not talking about a meditator who is going to experience samaadhi, but about a reader who wants to get a conceptual idea of what is being referred to by the text—when the reader is given an explanation of samaadhi: of how samaadhi functions in the Buddhist meditative path, about what its practice entails, about how the experience of it is described, and so forth.

Francisca Cho: Even a work of poetry can require extensive commentary. Wisdom Publications likes to have a lot of commentary in what they publish, but they asked that I move my commentaries to the back as notes on the poems in a separate commentarial section. That enabled the poems to stand as entities on their own. Then, the commentary is a companion that provides additional illumination and interpretation to the reader. The translation, however, should stand on its own as a fresh work.

Buddhadharma: One way to let readers connect more directly to the original meaning or experience is to leave some words untranslated. Do any of you do that?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: Not very much. It is a gentler inducement to the reader to continue to read a text in which most of the words are in intelligible English rather than to immediately flood them with a barrage of Pali words, which will have the effect of discouraging him or her from reading on. If the reader is persistent and intent on understanding the teachings of the Buddhist texts, then through continued exposure to these terms, they’ll get an idea of the deep meaning. To help show interrelationships, I may show the original word in brackets and explain other words it is connected to etymologically. But I try to leave as few words untranslated as possible: Buddha, and even that can be rendered as “the enlightened one;” dhamma, sangha, nibbana, and occasionally kamma.

Buddhadharma: Why not translate sangha as “community”?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: I think “community” suggests to a modern reader quite different things than what sangha would have meant—and does mean—in relation to Buddhism. In the context of the early Buddhist texts, it means either the monastic order or the spiritual community of those who have reached one of the levels of realization. One might think of it just as the social community, which would not convey the idea of a specific spiritual order.

Buddhadharma: When I’m reading the sutta, how do I come to understand what you just told me about sangha?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: That needs to be done in the glossary.

Buddhadharma: Sometimes an untranslated word can travel through several languages. For example, Professor Cho, one of Manhae’s poems is called “Samadhi of Sorrow.” Why did you choose not to translate samadhi?

Francisca Cho: I was following Manhae’s lead. His poems are written in Korean, but he maintained the use of the Chinese characters, which in this case would offer a phonetic rendition of the Sanskrit term samadhi. Since he wanted to use that term and not translate it into something like “concentration” in the Korean, I decided to use the Romanized equivalent of the Sanskrit term in my own translation.

Larry Mermelstein: We have a similar situation in translating from Tibetan. The Tibetans did not leave that much untranslated from Sanskrit, but they do use some Sanskrit terms and we almost always mirror that in just the same way as Francisca was saying. If a Tibetan text uses the Sanskrit word dukkha, we would not translate that into Tibetan or English. We have gone even further, though, in that we use a lot of Sanskrit technical terms whether they had been translated into Tibetan or not.

If we can find a very good English equivalent, especially if it’s one that many other translators have already accepted, we will use it, since we prefer to use as much English as possible. But we do use a lot of Sanskrit terminology. We do that if a term is presenting a central concept and we don’t feel we can find a suitable English term that is likely to be picked up on by others in the translation world as a really good equivalent. Bodhichitta is a good example. There are lots of translations of that term but I don’t know that any of them has yet stood out as so good that everybody bows their heads to it and says, “Yeah, we really want to use that.” Also, if we render it in English, we wonder whether the reader will instantly recognize it as a technical term of really great import. Leaving it in Sanskrit can let someone know that it’s a very important term and we want you to learn more about it. Just as Bhikkhu Bodhi was saying, we feel that the work we do necessitates a glossary, where every single foreign word is dealt with.

Buddhadharma: Why not have something like the French Academy and come up with an agreed-upon English rendering of bodhichitta that everybody uses?

Larry Mermelstein: It could be interesting to have a gathering of translators and try to come up with some standard renderings, but I would not be very hopeful about that. Who would have the authority? In Tibet, of course, you had royal patronage, so there could be a decree that said, “We’re going to do it this way.” I don’t see that being likely in the world today.

Elizabeth Callahan: It’s too early to standardize, I would say. We have just begun doing this and from where I sit it seems to me we are just starting to do good work. If we try to standardize right now we might—even if we could agree—end up settling for terms that we might later find don’t work so well. We could find something better if we kept trying. All translation work is experimentation. When I understand that, I feel freed up to try a new term, float it out for a while, and if it doesn’t work, fine. Sometimes one might use the Sanskrit term for a while to see if that will come to common usage in English. At other times one might try to create a technical term in English that will hold up in the variety of contexts in which the original term was used.

Francisca Cho: Perhaps the long-term goal is, in fact, to use the original Sanskrit, Pali or even Tibetan term and make that current rather than trying to find an English equivalent. These ancient words contain universes of meaning and nuances of history, which are very cumbersome to translate. What we should be moving towards is attaining a general cultural literacy in Buddhist thought and ideas so that people can use at least basic terms, such as dharma and karma and so forth, without having to translate. As Bhikkhu Bodhi said, to use “community” for sangha is much too general. It doesn’t engage the history and evolution of the Buddhist community that is the Sangha. It’s simply more efficient to use the original term. The process of absorbing these terms into the language may take awhile, and it may entail misunderstandings or oversimplified understandings at the beginning. But it seems to me that the goal would be to get to the point where we can use these Buddhist terms as English words.

Bhikkhu Bodhi: That would succeed only with a very limited number of words. If one tries to impose that scheme on a wider range of terms, one risks making Buddhist texts obscure to a large part of the population. There’s also a problem with choosing standardized English translations for Buddhist terms, because living languages are constantly changing. When one looks at the standardized renderings of Buddhist technical terms into Tibetan and Chinese, one has to remember that those texts were translated largely by an educated monastic to be read by an educated monastic readership, an elite that would become familiar with these terms in their own languages.

In the Theravada Buddhist countries, until modern times, the texts were not translated into the vernacular languages. Anybody who wanted to understand them would usually have to become ordained as a monk and read them in Pali. If one wants to have fixed, standard renderings of Buddhist technical terms into English and to make that rendering valid for centuries, one will be freezing the meaning of these terms, and the terms will not keep pace with the natural changes that take place in the evolution of the English language. At that point, the meaning of the terms will become obscure to the wider readership and only understood by a limited number of people who specialize in the study of the texts.

Buddhadharma: How many Sanskrit words can reasonably enter common parlance? Sometimes, we are surprised at how many there are. Samsara, for example, has begun to enter the language.

Bhikkhu Bodhi: Wasn’t there even a perfume called Samsara? (laughter)

Larry Mermelstein: And of course a band called Nirvana, which provided an unfortunate example of extinction.

Francisca Cho: I use the Samsara example with my students. Even though it’s a misappropriation, if samsara is used to sell perfume, it is evoking typical responses—passion, excitement, lust. Isn’t that what samsara is ultimately about? It’s odd that it is used as a selling point, a marketing device, but you can see a consistency there. So, I don’t think we need to use the original language to cater to an elite monastic community, but rather we need to influence and follow the popular diffusion of the ideas and reflect that in our word choices.

Larry Mermelstein: Our translation committee’s allegiance to Sanskrit is exactly for that reason. We do hope and expect that more terms will enter English. But I also agree with Bhikkhu Bodhi that it’s a pipe dream to think that as many of the words that we currently use in Sanskrit are going to be found in English dictionaries.

Francisca Cho: There already are more there than you might think.

Elizabeth Callahan: I agree. Sanskrit terms are showing up in English dictionaries these days a lot more than one would expect, and I’m often surprised to find them there. That can be very helpful. When I am casting about for translation equivalents in English, I often come across terms that have a lot of cultural connotations and implications in English that don’t exist with the Tibetan or Sanskrit term. However, I might still use an English word, because the value of the meaning it conveys may outweigh the extraneous connotations.

For example, “essence” has two principal meanings in English: the distilled extract of something or what something inherently is. The first of these is a misleading meaning for the Tibetan ngowo. One way out is to translate ngowo as “nature,” which is one of those overused translation terms. But I would prefer to use “essence,” because sometimes you have to put aside some of the connotations or usages in English and focus on one of the meanings of a particular term and start to use it and it starts to take on the Buddhist understanding of the term.

One of the ways I work with this is to use a lot of footnotes or endnotes and glossaries to try to bring out the meanings that these terms have in their original languages so that when people are reading it they can figure out how the word fits into the overall picture and form other associations with it. It’s not so much that we are redefining terms but sometimes we are trying to separate them from their cultural connotations.

Another example that comes to mind where strong cultural connotations come into play is in working with the many honorific terms in Tibetan used for teachers. Sometimes you will use terms like “Lord” because that’s the elevated sense it has for a Tibetan reader and you just aren’t going to find words in English that don’t have Christian or other kinds of connotations

Larry Mermelstein: Sometimes you definitely have to draw the line. We considered and rejected the word sin to translate the Tibetan digpa (papa in Sanksrit). In many ways, it’s an accurate translation but it is simply too laden. We chose evil deeds instead, which is still somewhat laden but less so.

Francisca Cho: On the other hand, some English words have come to be very widely associated with Buddhism or meditation. Mindfulness is a good example. It works because it didn’t have a pre-existing standard usage, so people can recognize it immediately as a Buddhist term. Perhaps that’s one characteristic that is necessary for a successful English translation to take place.

Buddhadharma: Does having a standard Buddhist vocabulary promote the very reification that Buddhism is meant to dissolve? Do code words impede understanding?

Elizabeth Callahan: People can always fixate on terms or symbols, but the Buddhist teachings clearly state that the conventions (which include words and terms) are used as a means for seeing ultimate reality, which transcends such conventions. We use conventions to transcend conventions. People will try to pin things down, especially as beginners, regardless of whether there is a standard vocabulary or not. The translator’s job is to convey the right tone of the work. If the teaching is about transcendence, then the words should point people in that direction, but simply using new terms each time will not necessarily accomplish this. As far as so-called code words go, there is much more value than danger there. Code words, such as the use of rig pa (awareness) by students and teachers in the Dzogchen tradition carry a wealth of import, years of personal experience and volumes of teachings. Rather than getting in the way, they simplify the matter.

Larry Mermelstein: It’s extremely helpful to develop some amount of standard vocabulary in English, just as is present in Sanskrit and Tibetan, even though many of these terms are used in a multiplicity of ways. The so-called theistic tendency or the urge to solidify one’s reference points is fundamental to human beings, and this is not easy to undermine. Of course, as one’s dharma becomes more jargonized, it decreases in its effectiveness for wide communication, beyond the tribe so to speak. Keeping such tendencies in mind forms part of the general awareness that translators need to bring to their work.

Buddhadharma: Carl Bielefeldt, a Dogen translator, talks about providing what he call “a hypersensitive translation” for some readers to try to capture some of the wordplay, poetry, humor, allusions and the like, subtleties you appreciate in reading a language you know well that are very hard to bring across in translation.

Bhikkhu Bodhi: That’s definitely the most difficult aspect of translation, to translate the play of words successfully. There’s lots of word play in the Pali canon. In the early discourses of the Buddha, the Buddha raises the question of how one can be called a samana, a true ascetic. He replies himself, saying, “One is a samana because one has pacified, subdued—samitaunwholesome states of mind.” On the surface, this might look like a straightforward etymological derivation, but it isn’t. Rather, it’s an example of a pun or what might be called “edifying etymology,” a word being playfully derived from another that it resembles to convey a doctrinal point. Similarly, we find the Buddha redefining braahmana as one who has “expelled—baahita—unwholesome states of mind.” Similarly, ruupa, the first of the five skandhas, is playfully derived from ruppati, to be molested or worn out. The two words have no connection apart from the word play. I have attempted to replicate this in English by translating ruupa as form and ruppati as deformed. Thus we read, “Why, monks, is it called form? It is deformed; therefore, it is called form. Deformed by what? Deformed by cold and heat, by hunger and thirst, by contact with flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, and serpents. It is deformed, monks, therefore it is called form.”

Larry Mermelstein: Sanskrit has a lot of that same kind of word play, and so does Tibetan to a certain degree. If the word play is doctrinally important or particularly clever, we might try to make a note of it, but most of the time playful language gets lost.

Elizabeth Callahan: The Tibetans never really did m

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